Gears of War – Agent Zeta

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LEVEL OVERVIEW

Development Info

Role: Sole Developer
Engine: Unreal 3.0 
Genre: Third Person Shooter
Development Time: ~150 Hours
Playtime: 10-15 Minutes

Level Features

 Sci-fi setting, imported assets from Unreal Tournament3/Eve Online
 Branching story paths/multiple endings
Blend of timing/memorization puzzles with combat

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DESIGN

High Concept

Explore a derelict space station, choose which NPC to side with, and solve puzzles and timing obstacles with some traditional Gears gameplay.

Level Summary

Agent Zeta, a secret biological weapon used to combat the Locust, was developed on-board a space station orbiting the planet Sera. The station went dark, and Marcus Fenix was sent to the station recover the weapon. He arrives to find all the crew dead. Two computer AIs, Jill and Phil, blame the other for killing the crew and causing chaos. Marcus must deal with the Locust on-board and decide which AI to side with, if any at all.

With branching story arcs, imported assets from UT3 and Eve Online, memory puzzles and a lighthearted narrative, players experience Gears of War in a new way.

Design Goals

  • • Create an interactive, engaging story
  • • Add new gameplay elements, such as a Simon-esque memory puzzle
  • • Change the aesthetic of Gears, both through visuals and audio, into something sleek and immersing

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FEATURES

Narrative Driven Level

In Agent Zeta, I wanted the player to feel connected to the story and level. In order to achieve this, I created two AI NPC’s who each blame the other for killing the crew and releasing the Locust on-board. By developing their personalities, and then asking the player who they believe is telling the truth, the player feels more involved in the story and its outcome. Jill is ostensibly the “good” AI, while Phil is always rationalizing and justifying killing humans, thus making him the “bad” AI. The AI’s fight for Marcus’ favor by “helping” him during the puzzle sections of the level. The tone and style of the dialogue is similar to a game like Portal.

There are two branching story paths in the level. The first is when the player decides which AI to initially delete, Phil or Jill. At the end of the level, after retrieving Agent Zeta (the whole reason why Marcus is there), the player can decide to bring the AI they sided with along on the escape ship or delete him/her. There are four different endings, increasing the replay value of the level.

 

Puzzles

Something I challenged myself with in this level was scripting puzzles. It turned out to be the funnest part of making the level, and really made me focus on conveyance to the player. I needed to make sure the puzzles were intuitive and that the feedback players got for being correct or incorrect was clear. To do this, I made responsive visual and audio cues, and also points of interest to direct the player. As a result, testers were never lost on how to proceed, and were not frustrated when they made a mistake.

 

The first puzzle was a Skyrim-esque pillar puzzle. The player must turn a set of three light panels to either blue or yellow to open a corresponding door (all lights must be blue to open the blue door, for example). Scripting this was simple, and adding the additional complexity of there being two different, exclusive solutions was fun to script. I used a series of booleans to set the states of the lights, and each time the player interacted with a light panel, I executed remote events to check the states of all lights. If all criteria was met, a sound went off, the door changed color, and collision that blocked the player was toggled off.

The second puzzle was a Simon memory puzzle. A short matinee displays the correct order that four light panels must be activated. Just as in Simon, I made unique sounds for each color to help the player. Should the player forget the solution, they can always re-watch the matinee.

Once again, I used booleans every time a light panel was touched. This time, I had to set the state of the light AND make sure the activated panel was in the correct sequence. Should the player mess up, I executed a remote event that reset the puzzle and let the player try again.

Another kind of puzzle were the timing obstacles. Players must carefully control Marcus to avoid being hit by moving lasers. The player encounters a second timing obstacle half-way through the level. In order to increase difficulty, the player must also deal with Wretches at the same time.

 

Custom Assets

The assets in the original Gears of War were not enough to create a convincing space-station. I worked with two other designers (John Zdrojkowski (johnzdrojkowski.com) and Todd Ables (toddables.com)) to import assets from Unreal Tournament 3 and recreated their corresponding materials in Gears. This took a lot longer than expected. Using my previous experience with the material editor in Roboball, I was comfortable enough to successfully create the materials I needed.

We also imported skyboxes from Eve Online, making the background scenery look a lot more interesting than glittering blackness. In order to complete the sci-fi feel, I imported custom sounds for music and sound effects.


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Post Mortem

Although I wanted to make a compelling story, in this day of professional voice acting for games, reading dialogue on-screen is not as immersing. With games like Bioshock Infinite taking character development to the next level with amazing facial animations, banter in between objectives, and professional actors, my characters fall flat in comparison. However, those things were just not feasible within the scope and time constraints of this project.

Extra problems had to do with the custom materials and meshes. Epic had made developments to the material editor by the time of UT3, so there were some gaps when attempting to reconstruct those materials in an older version of the editor. In some cases, I had to experiment with several node configurations to get similar effects, which took more time. Another problem was collision on some of the meshes. Some collision did not import correctly, and even if it did, it did not work well in the game. One example is the curved, white hallway I used several times throughout my level. I loved the way it looked, but the collision was bumpy and it was easy to get stuck on. I had to create my own collision with blocking volumes and test to make sure it was smooth and did not obstruct players. There were several, unforeseen problems such as this that added development time.

Architecture


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